Kenneth Roth, the former executive director of Human Rights Watch, has accused Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf of blocking him from a year-long fellowship at the school over Roth’s criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Roth alleged in a Friday interview with The Crimson that he was denied the position because of HRW’s work on Israel, a potential contradiction with the Kennedy School’s diversity statement embracing open debate and diversity of political views.
Elmendorf’s role in blocking Roth’s fellowship was first reported in The Nation on Thursday.
Roth said he agreed in June to a fellowship at the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy for the 2022-2023 academic year, but the center called him back several weeks later “sheepishly, embarrassed to say that Elmendorf had vetoed the fellowship.”
Roth said he learned why his fellowship was denied from Kathryn A. Sikkink, a professor of human rights policy at HKS, who had spoken with Elmendorf. “It was because I criticized Israel,” Roth said. Sikkink confirmed the account to The Crimson.
HKS spokesperson James F. Smith did not deny Roth’s specific allegations and declined to provide details about his fellowship candidacy.
“We have internal procedures in place to consider nominations for fellowships and other appointments, and we do not discuss our deliberations about individuals who may be under consideration,” Smith wrote in an emailed statement.
“Dean Elmendorf decided not to make this fellowship appointment, as he sometimes decides not to make other proposed academic appointments, based on an evaluation of the candidate’s potential contributions to the Kennedy School,” Smith wrote.
Roth, 67, retired from his role as HRW executive director at the end of August, after serving nearly three decades in the role. Roth said the Carr Center contacted him after he announced his retirement in April to inquire if he wanted to serve as a fellow.
Roth, who was in the process of writing a book, said he confirmed his interest in a fellowship two months later.
“It’s a natural place to go for leading human rights defenders if they are looking to write a book, or take a sabbatical, or do something that requires more of an academic setting,” Roth said. “I thought that it would be useful to use the Kennedy School as a base to do that, and to use the colleagues there as a chance to test ideas and redraft chapters.”
Roth said there was no indication his past criticism of Israel might be an issue until a July call with Elmendorf who asked cryptically if he had “any enemies.”
“I realized what he was driving at — I’m not naive here — so I mentioned the Israeli government doesn’t like me too, among this long list of governments that I ran through,” Roth said. “But that’s really what he wanted to know about.”
Sikkink, who is affiliated with the Carr Center, told The Nation that Elmendorf informed her that HRW has an “anti-Israel bias,” which led to his decision to not approve Roth’s fellowship.
Sikkink wrote in an emailed statement to The Crimson that she disagreed with the rejection of Roth’s fellowship.
“I very much regret this decision,” Sikkink wrote. “Not because I think Ken Roth (or anyone else) is somehow entitled to a fellowship at HKS, but because I think the reasons HKS gave for denying the fellowship fly in the face of all my knowledge about human rights information, data, and bias, something I have contributed a significant amount of research to throughout my career.”
Sikkink wrote that she compared annual reports on Israel’s human rights practices from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. State Department, finding no basis for allegations that HRW’s reporting on Israel was unfair.
“I have seen no credible evidence whatsoever that HRW or Ken Roth are biased against Israel,” Sikkink wrote. “I consider this misinformation, and for people who know better, actual disinformation.”
José Miguel Vivanco, the former executive director of the Americas Division at HRW, wrote in a statement to The Crimson that Roth “is one of the world’s most knowledgeable, experienced, and respected authorities on human rights.”
“It’s pretty remarkable and sad that Harvard would pass on the opportunity to have its students and scholars engage with and learn from him,” Vivanco wrote. “In my view, it shows extremely poor judgment.”
Roth said Elmendorf’s decision to reject his fellowship will have a chilling effect on young academics.
“This is not about me. This does not set back my career,” Roth said. “The real danger here is the signal that sends to people who are starting off in their academic careers, and the message is: ‘If you touch Israel, if you criticize Israel, you may not get very far in a world where academic freedom has qualifications to it.’”
Several advocacy groups denounced Elmendorf’s decision.
“If Harvard’s decision was based on HRW’s advocacy under Ken’s leadership, this is profoundly troubling — from both a human rights and an academic freedom standpoint,” Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement on Friday.
“Scholars and fellows have to be judged on their merits, not whether they please powerful political interests,” Romero added. “We urge Harvard to reverse its decision.”
PEN America, a freedom of speech advocacy group, wrote in a press release that “withholding Roth’s participation in a human rights program due to his own staunch critiques of human rights abuses by governments worldwide raises serious questions about the credibility of the Harvard program itself.”
The Harvard College Palestinian Solidarity Committee, which staged protests against a former Israeli military official who served as a fellow at HKS last spring, issued a statement on Friday saying it was “disappointed but unsurprised” that Elmendorf and the Kennedy School rejected Roth “on account of his advocacy for Palestine.”
The committee added that criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is the “bare minimum that we expect from any institution that seeks to uphold human rights across the world.”
HKS has invited both Palestinian and Israeli officials to serve fellowships at the school in the past.
Saeb Erekat, the longtime chief negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization, began a year-long fellowship at the school in fall 2020, before dying of Covid-19 during his tenure at HKS. Amos Yadlin, a retired Israeli Defense Forces general, was a senior fellow at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center last year.
Roth suggested that Elmendorf rejected his fellowship fearing it would anger Kennedy School donors.
“Harvard is the richest academic institution in the world,” Roth said. “If anybody was in a position to not let donors dictate — or not let donors censor — topics of academic inquiry, it would be Harvard.”
“This is a terrible statement about academic freedom at the Kennedy School,” he added.
—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.